“Perkins … three-ball … corner pocket!”
The crowd cheered and roared at the sight. Tyler Perkins — one of four freshmen on Penn men's basketball — nailed a pump fake and then a three over the head of his defender to increase the team's lead in its 76-72 win over No. 21 Villanova.
No one at Penn knew who Perkins was before that moment. Now, he’s on the March Madness Instagram page commemorating the win.
So, who is this new face on the block?
First and foremost, the freshman guard is a product of the DMV. No, not the Department of Motor Vehicles, but rather the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area. There, basketball culture thrives. While underlooked in comparison to the nearby New York City metropolitan area, the DMV continues to produce up-and-coming basketball talent.
There is of course NBA superstar Kevin Durant, the cousin duo Angel Reese of LSU and Jordan Hawkins of UConn who each won NCAA Championships earlier this year, and Jelani Williams — Penn alumnus and D.C. native who fought through multiple ACL injuries to make his collegiate debut.
“Everybody plays hard. If you don’t play hard, you’re not gonna make it to the next step,” Perkins said of the DMV.
While not coming back from any ACL injuries himself, Perkins has that same grit and toughness that Williams possessed. Coach Steve Donahue and the rest of the coaching staff have watched it manifest on the court in multiple ways — from the rebounding to the competitive nature.
Anyone at the Villanova game could tell that he is a bona fide scorer, but an underrated part of his game that most will overlook is his rebounding. Currently, Perkins averages 7.1 rebounds per game, second-most of the team and only 0.5 rebounds per game away from the team leader: junior center Nick Spinoso. In just his second collegiate game — the team's matchup with Bucknell on Nov. 8 — he recorded 14 boards to accompany his 24 points for his first ever double-double.
“The overriding trait we really like was no matter what situation he was in, he just really competed,” Donahue said. “Whether that was his high school team where he played the whole time, had to score, or his AAU team where he had to be a piece, different roles. He just always was engaged and played every aspect of the game.”
He's a do-it-all, well-rounded which was apparent to Donahue from the moment they started scouting him. This type of play is what earned Perkins a starting position from the first tipoff. To Donahue, the decision felt natural. Most freshmen would falter under the bright lights of collegiate starts, but Perkins didn't.
“I think it was pretty apparent early on that he was one of our best all-around players,” Donahue said. “I try not to think of freshman, sophomore, junior, senior — just try to do it on merit. And Tyler really performed well in preseason.”
Perkins’s first basket against the Wildcats was a memorable one: A fast break three that turned into a four-point play after a foul. It was a great way to get his night started, as he went on to score 18 more points over the course of the evening. While he says he could not appreciate the moment until all the confetti cleared and the students left the floor, the pandemonium of the night lived up to his expectations for the Palestra.
“That’s why I chose to come here. Because when it feels like that, you can’t beat it,” Perkins said.
While that game stands as the biggest of his career so far, he actually takes inspiration from one of Villanova’s greatest: Jalen Brunson, who — by entering the NBA Draft — missed out on losing in the Palestra in 2018.
Both are left-handed, which is rare enough in the general population but even rarer in basketball. The dominant hand can be a gamechanger, as defenders are often used to guarding right-handed players. But beyond that, Perkins says that he admires just the physicality of Brunson as a player and how he gets to the basket, which is something that Perkins champions about his game. Similarly, he takes inspiration from James Harden’s game for how he gets to the basket, makes shots, and creates assists.
Regardless of how he has played so far, Perkins has a lot to learn — and he knows it. Perkins is a freshman at the end of the day. While he plays with a similar suave to that of his more experienced collegiate peers, he cites remaining levelheaded as something to work on.
“In high school, you can be up and down a lot but in college you don’t have that time,” Perkins said. “You have to be even because I’m playing against guys that may be 22, 23, 24 years old so just being levelheaded and knowing that it’s next play, next game. Each possession matters. Little plays will either win or lose the game.”
Developing qualities like levelheadedness take time. But one thing that Perkins already has from the start is the unselfish spirit of Quaker basketball.
“I think he finds real joy in his teammates doing well, his team winning, despite or because of what he did,” Donahue said. “He just really has a great ability just to be engaged in the winning of the team more than personal accolades, which I think is sometimes hard for young players.”
Perkins’s career as a Quaker is just getting started, but he's already picked up three 20-plus-point performances. If he keeps playing like this, his career and statement performance over Villanova may just be the first of many.